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“Like Chinese water torture” – Marks & Spencer treated homeless like “vermin” by using inhumane deterrent

Marks & Spencer have been accused of treating homeless people like “vermin” after installing a deterrent behind one of their stores.

Using a high pitched alarm at their Ilford, East London store, the aim was to ensure homeless people would be unable to fall asleep and would need to move on. M&S left the alarm in operation for ‘several months’, before eventually saying it would be removed.

With Ilford night shelters often being full and the homeless being banned from sleeping in the park, the back of the store where the deterrent was installed is one of few relatively warm, dry and safe places. 

The Guardian reported that M&S argued that community protection law required it to:

“put in place measures that ensure our stores and the surrounding areas are secure for customers, colleagues and the local community”

Redbridge council, responsible for Ilford, said:

“The council were not aware of an alarm; however, we knew that M&S were planning to install physical measures to prevent the rough sleepers returning to the loading bay.

A homeless man who slept nearby described how rough sleepers had been made to feel like “vermin” by the deterrent. They had been forced to leave the safe spot, finding themselves in “dangerous, life threatening situations”. It is even claimed that it has resulted in some homeless women facing “physical and sexual violence”.

Choosing to remain anonymous, the man describing the horrific situation is a rough sleeper who writes an online blog called The Invisible Man: Diary of a Rough Sleeper. He created an online petition to demand an apology from M&S. An extract from one particuarly powerful post describes how the deterrent had affected rough sleepers:

“Marks & Spencer deliberately plays a loud, insidious beeping sound, throughout the night, from loudspeakers above the homeless. This sound, at times, goes on all night. You never get any rest. Some of us have experienced weeks and months where this horrible sound, which is like Chinese water torture, but worse, begins around midnight and continues until around 6am. It happens when ‘respectable’ people aren’t around to see what they are doing and stops when those people do emerge. In the morning, we homeless are expected to get up out of our sleeping bags, having had NO sleep, and look for work.”

Parker, another homeless man who also tried to find rest in the safe area, told The Guardian:

“When you are homeless you feel insignificant and a nuisance. Being subjected to that alarm adds an extra layer to those feelings and separates us further from the mainstream world. We bump into that world when we break a rule and are told ‘you can’t do this or you can’t do that’. The alarm is saying no to us again. It is saying no, you aren’t allowed to sleep.”

In response to the story, M&S have agreed to remove the alarm. They have also promised to draw up a local action plan and work with charities to “help fund practical measures to support those affected”. However, the alarm has already been used for several months and a lot of damage has been done. 

It seems that M&S have only acted because of public pressure. Had the cruel tactic not been revealed, one must strongly consider it highly likely they would still be using the deterrent. 

Last year, it was revealed by BBC’s Panorama that Syrian refugee children were making Marks & Spencer clothes. Found working in a Turkish factory, The BBC said that refugees often earned less than £1 an hour – well below the Turkish minimum wage.

The CEO of Marks & Spencer, Steve Rowe, took home £1.64m in April. This is a fifth down from his predecessor Marc Bolland, who took £2.04m in his final year. 

Will we see the top cats of M&S, who reap luxury from exploitation, react to the ill-treatment of Ilford’s homeless? Or will they just throw a bit of money at ‘the problem’ and wait for the news to move on? 

Get involved

  • Follow The Invisible Man’s blog – Warts and all blogging about life on the streets
  • Donate to his paypal account bistobovril@mail.com in order to allow him to continue opening eyes to the dire circumstances that rough sleepers have to endure
  • Search for local charities that work ‘on the ground’ with homeless people to see what you can do to help
  • Sign this petition that demands that local authorities are given the power and funds to build 100,000 social homes a year
  • Support Shelter – the charity that helps millions of people every year struggling with bad housing or homelessness through their advice, support and legal services

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